Manchurian Roots of Korean Protestantism

From Born Again: Evangelicalism in Korea, by Timothy S. Lee (U. Hawai‘i Press, 2010), pp. 10-11:

From the beginning, the history of Korean Protestantism is characterized by many people who were attracted to the faith primarily for its message of salvation. Already in the spring of 1886, one year after his arrival [Horace G.] Underwood was sought out by a man known as No Tosa (probably a pseudonym for No Chun-gyŏng), who had become interested in the missionary religion after reading a Chinese translation of the Gospels of Luke and Mark He now came to Underwood for further instruction in the religion. On July 18, 1886, he was baptized by Underwood, with assistance from [Henry G.] Appenzeller—a baptism the missionaries performed only after careful consideration, since the injunction against proselytizing [in Korea] was still in force. As it turned out. No was not the only Korean who came to Underwood around that time seeking baptism, unsolicited. By the end of 1887, Underwood had baptized twenty-four more unsolicited Koreans.

How did this come about? Did these Koreans come to the missionary even though no one had reached out to them, even though they had not heard the Gospel? The fact of the matter is that they had heard the Gospel message several years earlier—delivered by converts of Scottish missionaries working in China, specifically Manchuria. Three missionaries figure importantly here: Alexander Williamson, John McIntyre, and especially John Ross—all affiliated with the Scottish Presbyterian Church. It was Williamson who persuaded [Robert Jermain] Thomas to board the General Sherman for the fateful voyage of 1866 and persuaded Mclntyre and Ross to come to Manchuria as missionaries. In 1865 and again in 1867 Williamson visited a Manchurian border town called Korea Gate (Koryŏmun), the official gateway between China and Korea, evangelizing among Korean residents and sojourners there. Influenced by Williamson, Ross also visited Korea Gate in 1874 and 1876. During the latter visit he met Yi Ŭngch’an, who agreed to collaborate with him on a variety of translation works. Ross, with the help of Yi, published the Corean Primer (1877), The Corean Language (1878), Yesu sŏnggyo mundap (Bible Catechism; 1881), and Yesu sŏnggyo yoryŏng (Outline of the New Testament; 1881). In 1877 Ross and Yi began translating the New Testament, later aided by Mclntyre and several other Koreans, including Sŏ Sangyun and Paek Hongjun. In 1882 Ross published the Gospels of Luke and John, the first Gospels to be translated into han’gŭl. This was two years before Mark was independently translated by Yi Sujŏng, a Korean sojourning in Japan, and published in Japan; copies of the translation were later brought to Korea by Underwood and Appenzeller. Then in 1887 under the initiative of Ross, the first complete translation of the New Testament was finally published in Korean.

In 1879 Ross was on furlough in Scotland, where he published History of Corea: Ancient and Modern with Description of Manners and Customs, Language and Geography, Maps and Illustrations, the first history of Korea in English. That same year, McIntyre, while supervising Ross’ work in Manchuria baptized four Koreans, who thereby became the first Koreans to receive Protestant baptism. Only two of these men’s identities are known with certainty: Yi Ŭngch’an (Ross’s collaborator) and Paek Hongjun (who, upon being baptized returned immediately to his hometown in Ŭiju to evangelize). In May 1881 Ross returned to Manchuria, initially to Newchwang (the next month he would move to Mukden). There he met Sŏ Sangyun, an erstwhile ginseng peddler who had fallen deathly ill a couple of years earlier and was brought back to health owing to McIntyre’s help. McIntyre sought to introduce Sŏ to the Christian faith giving him a copy of the Chinese Bible, only to meet a polite rebuff—So had been steeped in Confucian learning. But becoming curious about the Bible, Sŏ read and reflected upon it for a year or so, before seeking out Ross for further instruction. Under Ross’ guidance, Sŏ underwent conversion and was baptized in May 1881.

After his conversion. Sŏ became an indefatigable evangelist, working closely with Ross as a colporteur. Between 1882 and 1885, Sŏ smuggled copies of the Bible into Korea, given to him by Ross, and distributed them in Sorae, his hometown in Hwanghae Province, and in Seoul. He was never just a seller of religious literature; he sought ardently to impart to his interlocutors the conviction of salvation he experienced in the Christian faith. Consequently, by the end of 1883 he was already able to report to Ross that he had thirteen persons ready to receive baptism. A year later, the number of prospective baptizees So reported to Ross had climbed to seventy. By that time, his younger brother Sŏ Kyŏngjo (also known as Sangu) had converted and, with the help of Sangyun had established a Protestant community in Sorae—that is, before the arrival of Allen. In March 1885, Sŏ was back in Manchuria, in Mukden asking Ross to come down to Korea and baptize the men he had led to the faith—a request Ross turned down reluctantly, owing to the inauspicious political circumstances. A month later Underwood and Appenzeller arrived in Korea. Near the end of 1886 Sŏ visited Underwood and asked him to go with him to Sorae to baptize the new believers. This request was also declined, since Underwood was prohibited from traveling inland. Consequently, in January 1887, Sŏ brought several of the believers from Sorae to Seoul, to be examined by Underwood for baptism.

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Filed under China, Korea, religion, Scotland, U.S.

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